Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Silverlight Shenanigans!

Until now I've avoided writing a blog post on the whole "Microsoft are killing off Silverlight" noise that's been reverberating around the Microsoft echo chamber for the last month or two, although I have commented on others posts where basic facts were quite outrageously being ignored. There are three reasons why I haven't rushed to make a blog post:

  1. I saw the way the echo chamber launched an all-out assault on the first person to 'go public' with what was really happening within Microsoft a month or so ago. I've had enough of that already, thank you very much. I don't need any more of it. Dealing with unthinking zealots is never much fun!

  2. It would have been hard to say anything without naming sources for the information that I first heard about back in August, but which wasn't generally in the public domain. That could have caused problems for people simply being honest about what seemed to be happening internally within the company.

  3. There was far too much heat around the subject once the basic 'Silverlight strategy has changed' statement became public last Friday. I wanted a few days out to consider what I was going to say about it.

I'd probably have remained quiet if Microsoft hadn't effectively gone public at PDC. I've been extremely critical of Microsoft in the past, but boy they reached new levels of incompetence at this year's PDC. First of all they made their main keynote a repeat of that given 3 years ago - one that had been used to launch Silverlight, but this time round replaced the word 'Silverlight' with 'HTML5' to promote their brave new focus. One really has to wonder whether those responsible for this farcical state of affairs are idiots, just plain lazy, or simply assumed the developer audience were idiots and wouldn't notice. When you're asking people to travel and pay good money you owe them a hell of a lot more than a tired old rehash of a previous keynote!

Then, in an interview with a journalist at the event, a senior exec reported that the company's Silverlight strategy had changed. The executive, Bob Muglia, effectively stated that the change in strategy was that Silverlight was now focused on Windows Phone, whilst noting as an aside that it had some 'sweet spots' for line-of-business apps. HTML5 was now 'the glue between the front end and the back end'. The message was very clear, and (I thought) very carefully and deliberately worded. This was not a misquote, this was a thoroughly prepared statement.

The echo chamber went ballistic. The Silverlight MVPs went into 'ignore reality' mode and posted long, tedious articles reminding folks how much easier and more productive it is to develop a line of business application in Silverlight rather than with HTML5 (well duh!), adding in great dollops of FUD about lying tech journalists, huge Silverlight demand from businesses, and news that HTML5 would not be ready for another 10-12 years along the way.

The general developer community split into two rather extreme camps: one saying they'd they'd never trust Microsoft again and would now actively look elsewhere for technology solutions, the other rejoicing that yet another 'useless, proprietary shiny toy' from the company was rightly being abandoned.

Yesterday the exec who'd made the statement that caused all the furour was forced into 'damage control' mode and made a new blog post stating that there would be a new release of Silverlight (nobody had ever claimed otherwise!) and basically re-iterating the main points he'd already made, albeit couched in more diplomatic language. Bottom line, as the journalist who'd reported the original remarks pointed out: nothing at all had changed.

So it was extremely disappointing (if entirely expected) that huge swathes of Silverlight MVPs and evangelists have rushed to celebrate the fact that they have been 'proved right' and the 'nay-sayers' were all wrong. Ridiculous posts re-iterating those same tired 'facts' ('RiaStats.com says Silverlight has huge market share') or pointing out that all tech journalists are scum, or that people have been too 'emotional' (presumably it's better to be mindlessly 'passionate' instead!) have appeared like flies all over a fresh turd. The message seems to be that all is back to normal, the storm in a teacup is over, we can all relax and the drama queens so quick to attack Microsoft and Silverlight without understanding or using the technology can all bugger off! Hoorah!

What such posters seem to have spectacularly missed is that nothing in the new post contradicts anything at all that caused all the furour in the first place. Arguments about ridiculously low take-up of Silverlight amongst developers AND businesses, (even after three years of marketing hype) are conveniently ignored in the rush to say 'Nyaa, nyaa. I told you so. Silverlight rocks. HTML5 sucks. Shame on you for thinking otherwise'.

Yes, HTML5 and JavaScript do suck somewhat. The tooling isn't there either. And the real mistake Microsoft have made in rushing to announce the 'change in strategy' is that they've done so too early. The tools aren't there for HTML5, Microsoft haven't got them in place, and are clearly some significant time way from having them in place. My guess is that the core developers currently 'on loan' to PRISM or Windows Phone 7 won't be back in their 'real' Silverlight development roles until after Christmas. That means they have a LOT of work to do if they're to make the MIX11 deadline of April 2011 that they need to make to retain any sort of credibility around their Silverlight strategy.

But if you really think that this means that Microsoft haven't made decisions at the highest level that the vast majority of future effort is going to HTML5 rather than Silverlight you're living in cloud-cuckoo land. And, with all due respect, statements from Silverlight evangelists about betting their own careers on the technology (haven't we all?!), losing money on their houses to do so etc etc are totally irrelevant. These folk are not working at the political exec level where these things are decided. Nor, if history is anything to go by, at a level where they will have any real say in the decisions that the various in-fighting political divisions in Microsoft will make that will affect them. It's amazing how nobody's mentioning the fact that Silverlight's biggest internal evangelist, Bill Gates' chosen successor Ray Ozzie, is leaving the company (did he fall or was he pushed?) or taking on board that this might not be the best news for Silverlight's future.

My guess is that Silverlight 5 will be a 'stabilisation' release that unites the browser/desktop world (currently on Silverlight 4) with the phone world (currently on a mix of Silverlight 3, with some bits of Silverlight 4 and some new additional hacks on top of that). I'll be pleasantly surprised if we see much else - there's a reason why former Silverlight Product Manager Scott Barnes tweeted that 'Silverlight and WPF are dead' after a visit to Redmond, and it has nothing to do with seeing lots of bodies working on a new release! The hope has to be that Silverlight's main design tool, Blend 5, will be modified to incorporate some sort of HTML5 Canvas functionality, maybe even some sort of XAML/Silverlight to HTML5/JavaScript conversion. That sort of stuff doesn't get written overnight, and if the last 6 months have demonstrated anything it's that Microsoft finds it impossible to move at anything like the rate they need to move to keep up with their competitors and the shifting device platforms out there.

I don't think anybody's denying that Silverlight's a much better technology than HTML5 for writing RIA applications. That's not the point here. It's irrelevant, just as the same arguments used to justify Betamax over VHS, or HD-DVD over Blu-Ray, were irrelevant when it came to what survived in the marketplace.

If you're a Silverlight developer you should have been looking at HTML5 already anyway. What the announcements over the last month or so have indicated is that, short of a seriously dramatic shift in market demand, device reach and developer interest, Silverlight is living on borrowed time and is effectively becoming a 'niche' product rather than the 'premier UI' for Microsoft that it was announced to be this time last year. No amount of articles from those with vested interests, conveniently ignoring all the evidence or the real arguments, is going to change that!

The only thing that matters in all the heat and noise of the last few days is that a 'shift in strategy' has been announced. You ignore that shift in strategy at your peril!